AGVs: The Future Is Now

Oct. 1, 2009
The ability of AGVs to fit in tight areas and adapt to change make them a good choice for 21st Century facilities.

Companies are looking for ways to lower operating costs, increase efficiency and be more competitive in this economy. Who knew the solution was revealed in a cartoon some of us watched more than 20 years ago?

The opening scene of the cartoon, “The Jetsons,” is amazing. The household functions like a well oiled machine because of one simple thing: Everything the family needs is brought to them by some sort of robot or guided vehicle.

Well, technology has finally caught up with this futuristic family. It may not be in our homes yet, but in manufacturing and distribution, the future has arrived, thanks to automated guided vehicles (AGVs).

Lower Costs, Boost Efficiency

AGVs have been around for a while, although rising labor costs and increased affordability have recently given the industry a boost. Today, AGVs play an important role in the design of new factories and warehouses as more companies recognize the technology as an efficient, dependable and versatile material handling solution.

The increasing popularity of AGVs is due to the cost savings and efficiencies that can be gained in manufacturing and distribution facilities. These futuristic vehicles run on the plant floor and help move product from point A to point B without the need for an onboard operator or driver. This makes AGVs cost effective for a variety of industries, including automotive, food and beverage, chemicals and plastics, commercial print, paper and pharmaceuticals.

AGVs often move raw material to a manufacturing line and finished product to a distribution area, which helps companies focus employee time on value-added activities, while the AGVs handle the mundane movement of materials. They also help reduce labor-related costs and product damage, improve safety and ensure on-time material delivery.

AGVs are particularly useful in the following applications:

• Multiple-shift operations;
• Repetitive movements;
• Processes for which material tracking is critical.

Types of AGVs

There are several different types of AGVs. Towing/tugger vehicles are commonly used in manufacturing facilities. They are in demand for their ability to tow single or multiple trailers that can be configured for manual or automated loading. Towing vehicles are popular in a variety of industries, such as paper and automotive, where the same AGV tugger can be applied to many different applications just by changing trailers. This interchangeability lends itself well to the flexibility, serviceability and backup requirements of just-in-time (JIT) environments.

Unit load vehicles feature rugged steel frames and onboard conveyance, making them suitable for industrial environments with automated processes. For example, a food and beverage company making packaged products can benefit from this type of AGV.

Cart vehicles, popular in the automotive and electronics industries, are used for material transportation and assembly line tasks. Typically featuring low capacity and complexity, these systems are less expensive than conventional AGVs and also more flexible. Most cart vehicles follow a magnetic tape on the floor, so changing the path is quick and inexpensive. In this scenario, a cart might move auto parts to employees along the assembly line.

Fork vehicles are designed for applications in which automated load pickup or delivery is required from various heights. Fork vehicles are most often used for trailer loading and unloading and floor-to-floor delivery.

Size and Flexibility Matter

AGVs are available in several sizes, typically ranging from 2,000 to 20,000 pounds. In the last decade, smaller-capacity AGVs, ranging from 500 to 2,000 pounds, have become more prevalent. These smaller AGVs, sometimes known as light-duty AGVs, are designed for small, frequent loads and for companies looking to increase handling volume without adding operational staff.

In this category, look for features like multiple path programming, remote communication and safety items, such as optical sensors. These sensors can be programmed for different zones to allow safe operation near pedestrians and in confined spaces.

To get the most flexibility, AGV guidance systems should be simple and easy to modify.

Choose Carefully

Consider several factors before purchasing AGVs, including the type of vehicle and guidance control system that best fits the application and budget. When choosing an AGV supplier, look for experience in the market and a company with dedicated AGV product specialists. Each AGV solution is customized to meet a businesses’ exact application and needs, so it’s best to choose a company with specialists who will work with you to analyze your particular needs and recommend the most efficient material handling solution. Other important factors to consider include:

• Overall cost;
• Ease and cost to maintain;
• Performance and flexibility;
• Cost and availability of parts.

A Versatile Solution

The ability of AGVs to fit in tight areas and adapt to changes make them suitable for any business with manufacturing plants, warehouses or distribution centers. Benefits include higher productivity, continuous operation, reduced product damage, improved process flow, improved safety and elimination of non-value-added activities.

Now, who do we talk to about getting these products in our homes? I’m sure all of us could use a solution for higher productivity when the alarm clock goes off at 6 a.m.

Tim Meyer is the Toyota Production System (TPS) solutions and AGV product manager for Toyota Material Handling USA Inc. He is responsible for the overall management of TMHU’s AGV lineup at Toyota automotive plants throughout the United States. He also is responsible for the development and launch of TPS and AGV solution packages offered through Toyota’s national dealer network.

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